The 50 greatest HBO shows ever – ranked

From juicy dramas about polyamory, bootlegging and the ‘golden age of porn’ to the most jaw-dropping documentary moment of all time, HBO is known as the home of prestige TV. As it turns 50, here are its greatest hits so far

‘It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” This was once the US premium cable network’s slogan. Home Box Office launched on 8 November 1972 as a pay channel for movies and live sport. It pivoted to original programming in the 90s and transformed the small-screen landscape.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we’ve painstakingly picked and ranked its Top 50 shows. Unshackled from the limitations of broadcast television, HBO was able to attract top-tier talent, push boundaries and redefine what the medium could do. It ushered in the era of “peak TV” with an astonishingly consistent output of prestige shows.

Indeed, its record is so strong that many cult favourites – apologies to fans of Westworld, The Righteous Gemstones, John Adams and Generation Kill – didn’t make our cut. We also omitted series from its sister streamer HBO Max, such as Hacks, Search Party and Station Eleven.

What remains is a half-century of gamechanging dramas, coruscating comedies and landmark documentaries. Their settings span from Los Angeles funeral parlours to London pubs, Manhattan boutiques to Baltimore stash houses. Their protagonists range from sexy vampires to sweary media moguls, dragon riders to depressed mobsters. Fire up that static ident and commence the countdown …

50. Industry (2020-present)

The young pup on our list, fittingly, is the BBC co-production following the fresh intake at City investment bank Pierpoint & Co – a shark-eyed world of which creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay have direct experience. The sex, drugs and back-stabbing don’t hurt either.

49. The Comeback (2005-2014)

The Comeback.
Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback. Photograph: Bruce Birmelin/HBO

Lisa Kudrow riffed on her post-Friends career with this ahead-of its-time mockumentary about a washed-up sitcom star trying to relaunch her career. Hilarious, heartbreaking and scathing about Hollywood, it even made a comeback itself, landing a second series nine years after the first. How meta.

48. Sharp Objects (2018)

Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson excelled in this slow-burn psychological thriller, based on Gillian Flynn’s novel, about an alcoholic crime reporter returning to her Missouri home town to cover the murders of two local girls. Clammy and claustrophobic with a killer twist.

47. The Corner (2000)

David Simon and co warmed up for The Wire with this Emmy-winning six-parter about a drug-ravaged West Baltimore neighbourhood. A harrowingly authentic portrayal of poverty and addiction.

46. Treme (2010-2013)

Clarke Peters as Albert Lambreaux in Treme. Photograph: Paul Schiraldi Photography

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” Some viewers were initially baffled by David Simon’s post-Katrina drama, expecting The Wire Mk 2. Once they tuned into its slow-burn storytelling and jazzy rhythms, what emerged was a love letter to the city and the power of community.

45. Mildred Pierce (2011)

Kate Winslet won a raft of awards for her gut-punch portrayal of a struggling single mother during the Great Depression, desperately trying to earn the love of vile daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood).

44. Entourage (2004-2011)

Let’s hug it out. The none-more-00s adventures of a movie star’s posse of pals, loosely based on exec producer Mark Wahlberg’s life, were huge fun for a while back there – largely thanks to abrasive agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven).

43. The Rehearsal (2022)

Nathan Fielder’s meta docucomedy, in which he stages elaborate simulated scenarios for punters facing difficult conversations, is deeply odd but utterly hypnotic. Happily, it’s just been renewed for a second run.

42. Big Love (2006-2011)

Bill Paxton played a retail boss with three wives in a fundamentalist Mormon community, but this richly emotional drama covered more than the juicy subject of polygamy. It was about family, faith and politics, with Chloë Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin and Jeanne Tripplehorn as the “sister wives”.

41. The Deuce (2017-2019)

The Deuce.
Sleazy does it … Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce. Photograph: Steve Sands/GC Images

David Simon’s sixth HBO creation was this immersive drama set in 70s NYC during the “golden age of porn”. Maggie Gyllenhaal shone as the sex worker turned adult film director, with James Franco doubling up as twins working for the mafia. Vividly realised and stylishly seedy.

40. In Treatment (2008-2021)

The stagey but beautifully written psychotherapy drama, based on Israeli series BeTipul, was anchored by a superb turn from Gabriel Byrne as the shrink in the throes of a midlife crisis. It made a lockdown comeback with Uzo Aduba in the therapist’s chair.

39. Mr Show With Bob and David (1995-1998)

There isn’t much sketch comedy on HBO, but this rare gem proved hugely influential. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross exploited the creative freedom of premium cable to push boundaries and elicit big laughs. The supporting cast, including Jack Black and Sarah Silverman, wasn’t bad either.

38. Lovecraft Country (2020)

Lovecraft Country.
Aunjanue Ellis in Lovecraft Country. Photograph: HBO

This pulpy period horror saga reimagined the tales of HP Lovecraft from a racial perspective, as Korean War veteran Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) battled the bigoted terrors of segregated 1950s America. Wild, weird and sadly a one-series wonder.

37. Show Me a Hero (2015)

Co-written by David Simon, directed by Paul Haggis, soundtracked by Bruce Springsteen and starring Oscar Isaac? Pretty solid credentials. This miniseries about real-life Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko managed to make thrilling drama out of public housing policy.

36. Olive Kitteridge (2014)

The miniseries adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel earned every one of its eight Emmys. Frances McDormand was mesmerising as the misanthropic “math” teacher from Maine, strongly supported by Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, Jesse Plemons and Bill Murray.

35. When the Levees Broke (2006)

Spike Lee’s epic and profound docuseries about the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was described by a HBO executive as “one of the most important films we’ve ever made”.

34. Looking (2014-2016)

Chronicling three gay men forming a makeshift family in San Francisco, this gorgeously naturalistic series lacked the shock factor of Queer As Folk but was more meditative and moving. One of its stars, Murray Bartlett, would go on to steal the show in stablemate The White Lotus.

33. Big Little Lies (2017-2019)

Big Little Lies.
Tell me lies … Big Little Lies. Photograph: HBO

Those Monterey mansions with vast kitchen islands were home to all manner of dysfunction. The starry, soapy whodunnit proved a victim of its own success, with an unnecessary second series that even Meryl Streep couldn’t save.

32. True Blood (2008-2014)

American Beauty writer Alan Ball turned novelist Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries into a sort of grown-up Buffy, all snappy dialogue and steamy sex. It tailed off after three seasons but Anna Paquin’s performance as telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse kept fang fans on side.

31. Insecure (2016-2021)

Issa Rae and Kendrick Sampson in Insecure. Photograph: HBO/Warner Media

Issa Rae expanded her YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, into a razor-sharp comedy about two college friends navigating life and love in South Central LA. Rae’s “mirror moments” and chemistry with co-star Yvonne Orji were hella great.

30. The Night Of (2016)

Adapted from underrated BBC drama Criminal Justice, this riveting miniseries worked as a tense thriller and a searing critique of the US legal system. As a student accused of murder, Emmy-winner Riz Ahmed led an ensemble including John Turturro and Michael K Williams.

29. Euphoria (2019-present)

Provocatively twisted teen drama Euphoria is an exhilarating and at times terrifying peek into the drug-addled, sex-saturated, social media-fuelled dystopian landscape that is 21st-century high school. Grange Hill was never this gorgeous.

28. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst ... a landmark docuseries.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst ... a landmark docuseries. Photograph: HBO

New York real estate heir Robert Durst’s confession that he “killed them all, of course” was one of the most jaw-dropping TV moments of all time. A landmark docuseries which helped bring a monster to justice and kickstarted the entire true-crime genre.

27. True Detective (2014-present)

If True Detective was a one-series deal, it would be much higher in our ranking. Unfortunately, the hypnotic debut run – with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana cops on the trail of an occult serial killer – was followed by two plodding sequels. A fourth instalment, set in Alaska and starring Jodie Foster, is expected in 2023.

26. Oz (1997-2003)

“It’s no place like home.” Together with The Sopranos, the taboo-tackling prison epic set at Oswald maximum security penitentiary built HBO’s reputation as a drama powerhouse. Graphically sexual and gruesomely violent, it helped usher in the golden age of TV.

25. Veep (2012-2019)

Did the president call? … Veep. Photograph: Lacey Terrell/HBO

When Armando Iannucci remade his splenetic Westminster sitcom The Thick of It as a Washington satire, a politician as venally incompetent as vice-president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seemed cartoonish. Midway through its run, Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office. A year after its finale, Rudy Giuliani hosted a press conference outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Sue, did the president call?

24. My Brilliant Friend (2018-present)

This adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan novels is simply sublime. Following working-class frenemies Lenù (the bookish one) and Lila (the wild one), it’s a beautifully nuanced portrait of lifelong female friendship. A fourth and (sob) final season is in the works.

23. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (2014-present)

The US’s sharpest satirist is a bespectacled Brit with a furry mascot fixation. Since graduating from The Daily Show to his own vehicle, Oliver has broken the late-night mould by eschewing celebrity guests in favour of a global focus and insightful deep dives, all without sacrificing a high gag rate. HBO gives him the freedom to pull no punches and even be scathing about the network itself. And now, this.

22. Girls (2012-2017)

Fearless and funny … Girls. Photograph: HBO/Allstar

“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice, of a generation.” OK, it was privileged and occasionally problematic but Lena Dunham’s genre-hopping show about twentysomething Brooklyn hipsters was fearless, funny and undeniably influential. It unearthed acting talent including Adam Driver and opened the door to a wave of messy, millennial female comedy.

21. The White Lotus (2021-present)

To fill a pandemic-enforced gap in HBO’s slate, Mike White dreamed up a show that could be filmed in a Covid-safe bubble. The dazzling result was this comedy-drama about the put-upon staff and spoilt guests at a high-luxe Hawaiian resort. The second series, now airing, shifts the satirical action to Sicily. White’s previous creation, Enlightened, only narrowly missed making our list.

20. Silicon Valley (2014-2019)

Mike Judge’s caustic but ultimately soft-hearted tech-industry satire, following the misfits at software startup Pied Piper, was vastly underappreciated at the time. With each Mark Zuckerberg metaverse misstep or Elon Musk meltdown, it looks ever more prescient.

19. Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009)

The musical comedy genre was dragged into the 00s by Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. Their whimsical tale of a two-man New Zealand folk band trying to make it big in New York swept us along with its relaxed charm and daft humour. Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros, anyone?

18. Watchmen (2019)

Damon Lindelof’s ambitious alternate take on Alan Moore’s masked vigilantes blew all expectations out of the water. Rather than pandering to fanboys, it delivered a thrillingly intelligent indictment of the US’s dark past and divided present.

17. Angels in America (2003)

Angels in America.
What a cast … Al Pacino and Meryl Streep in Angels in America. Photograph: HBO/Everett/Rex Features

It spent a decade in development hell but when the adaptation of Tony Kushner’s stage play about the 80s Aids epidemic finally arrived on screen, it proved worth the wait. Mike Nichols’ direction was spellbinding. Al Pacino and Meryl Streep led a stellar cast. It swept the board at both the Emmys and Golden Globes.

16. Band of Brothers (2001)

Saving Private Ryan dream team Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg reunited to create this 10-part epic, fictionalising the second world war experiences of Easy Company’s paratrooper division, from jump training to VJ Day. It was immersive and viscerally emotional, with depth added by bookending episodes with the testimonies of real-life veterans.

15. Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)

Lazily written off as a prohibition-era Sopranos, the gangland epic set in Atlantic City during the Roaring 20s soon became its own beast entirely. Martin Scorsese directed the $18m pilot episode and it looked suitably lavish, with a panoramic scope spanning from powerful politicians to lowly liquor bootleggers.

14. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)

Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Photograph: HBO

Pretty, pretty, pretty good. After co-creating Seinfeld, “a show about nothing”, Larry David repeated the trick with this potty-mouthed, semi-improvised comedy about our cantankerous antihero’s misadventures in LA. Celebrity cameos whizz past but it’s the supporting characters – notably Leon (JB Smoove) and Susie (Susie Essman) – who really rock.

13. Deadwood (2004-2019)

Like Boardwalk Empire or The Deuce, this is the sort of down-and-dirty period piece at which HBO excels. Set in a lawless South Dakota gold-mining settlement in the 1870s, it was described as “Shakespeare in the mud”. A wild, wicked western full of reprehensible characters, most memorably Ian McShane’s aptly named saloon owner Al Swearengen, who contributed many of the 43 F-bombs in the show’s first hour.

12. Mare of Easttown (2021)

Kate Winslet delivered a blistering performance as world-weary Mare Sheehan, a smalltown Philadelphia detective investigating a teenage girl’s murder. A blend of slow-burning whodunnit, subtle character study and portrait of a community ravaged by poverty and addiction, punctuated by shattering shock twists.

11. Barry (2018-present)

The best TV show you probably haven’t watched, this pitch-black comedy-drama follows a Marine-turned-hitman who finds his true calling on the LA am-dram scene. Juggling tense action with wistful comedy, it’s the role Bill Hader was born to play. Can our tortured protagonist escape his dark past and become a proper actor? Filming on the fourth season has just wrapped.

10. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)

Hey now. Hugely influential on everything from Curb to Ricky Gervais, Garry Shandling’s seminal spoof talkshow was a decade ahead of its time. Larry’s longsuffering crew – played by Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn, Janeane Garofalo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeremy Piven and Bob Odenkirk – were a who’s who of US comedy, with Judd Apatow on the writing team. No flipping.

9. The Leftovers (2014-2017)

The Leftovers.
Better and better … The Leftovers. Photograph: HBO

Showrunner Damon Lindelof turned Tom Perrotta’s post-apocalyptic novel, in which 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappear without explanation, into a courageously knotty drama about a love, loss and a community trying to rebuild their lives. After a slow start, it just got better and better. Justin Theroux, Ann Dowd and Christopher Eccleston were great but Carrie Coon was flat-out incredible.

8. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

A decade after raising TV’s game with The Sopranos, HBO did it again with the unflinching fantasy epic which became a pop cultural phenomenon. Despite fumbling the chalice in the home stretch, the highs of this mega-budget blockbuster remain unmatched. Rival broadcasters have spent millions trying to replicate GoT’s success. Perhaps predictably, HBO itself has come closest by returning to Westeros with prequel House of the Dragon.

7. Sex and the City (1998-2004)

Sex and the City.
‘One liners to burn’ … Sex and the City. Photograph: Reuters

I couldn’t help but wonder … Where would the Manhattan man-eaters come in our countdown? Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte didn’t just turn a generation on to Manolo Blahniks, Cosmos and gossipy bottomless brunches. Their conveyor-belt dating escapades helped banish the idea that “older” women should be married and monogamous. A gamechanging portrayal of female friendship with witty one-liners to burn. Two spin-off films and sequel series And Just Like That struggled to recapture the magic but the original remains a landmark series.

6. Chernobyl (2019)

The devastating 1986 nuclear disaster in present-day Ukraine was brought to queasy life by writer Craig Mazin’s terrifyingly realistic miniseries. The five-parter, co-produced with Sky, was a formidably researched, relentlessly paced story of incompetence, corruption and cover-ups, soundtracked by wailing sirens and clicking Geiger counters. The impeccable ensemble cast included Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley and the late Paul Ritter but it’s Jared Harris’ portrayal of whistleblowing scientist Valery Legasov which haunts the memory.

5. I May Destroy You (2020)

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.
Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Michaela Coel turned down a $1m offer from Netflix to retain creative control and full ownership rights over her stunning series, instead co-produced by HBO and the BBC. She courageously channelled her own rape into a searing treatise on consent and trauma. Protagonist Arabella, alongside best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), confronted the varying kinds of sexual assault perpetrated against them. Shattering but ultimately healing, with the darker material offset by a healthy dose of heart and humour.

4. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

Michael C Hall and Peter Krause in Six Feet Under.
Undertakers with style … Michael C Hall and Peter Krause in Six Feet Under. Photograph: Reuters

Who’d have thought a show about death could be so life-affirming? Alan Ball’s funeral parlour drama was haunting, profound and surprisingly funny. As well as the travails of the Fisher family, its groundbreaking depiction of gay characters and tender meditations on mortality, the freak fatalities that opened each episode were mini marvels in their own right. Unlike several shows on this list, it even stuck the landing with that extraordinary seven-minute signoff montage.

3. Succession (2018-present)

“Money wins. Here’s to us.” If it the upcoming fourth (and hopefully fifth) series maintain its skyscraper-high standard, Succession could yet climb a place or two. When Jesse Armstrong’s scabrously satirical comedy-drama debuted, viewers had become accustomed to brutal betrayals and violent power plays on-screen. Seeing the Roy family stab each other in the back without a drop of blood being spilt was strangely refreshing. As a critique of media ownership, late-stage capitalism and the ultra-rich, it’s a morality play for our times. As a high-spec super-soap with baroque swearing, it’s even more enjoyable.

2. The Wire (2002-2008)

The Wire.
‘I want you to put the word out there that we back up’ … Idris Elba as Stringer Bell in The Wire. Photograph: HBO

David Simon’s meticulously constructed magnum opus about the Baltimore narcotics trade only narrowly misses out on our top spot. It portrayed the lives of working-class, predominantly black Americans in textured, journalistic depth. Gang violence, the “war on drugs”, police corruption, the media, education system, local government and deindustrialisation were all explored with rare sensitivity and subdued fury, via an indelible cast of characters. Despite being a staggeringly insightful social commentary on mid-00s urban America, it feels as vital and relevant as ever, 20 years on from its debut.

1. The Sopranos (1999-2007)

The Sopranos.
New Jersey’s finest … The Sopranos. Photograph: HBO/Sportsphoto/Allstar

What else could it be, if not the show that arguably started it all? David Chase’s mobster masterpiece catapulted the network to the forefront of the prestige TV era. From a deadly college detour to a cut-to-black that had viewers checking their TV sets (and still hotly debating it today), the satisfyingly complex drama turned gangster tropes on their head. As antihero Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) struggled to balance his two families – the blood one at home, the crime one at work – his mental health suffered, his enemies multiplied and the body count mounted. HBO has an astonishing back catalogue, but nothing has ever quite topped The Sopranos.

• This article was amended on 15 November 2022 to clarify that Chernobyl was co-produced with Sky.


Michael Hogan and Sammy Gecsoyler

The GuardianTramp

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